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The Interpretation of the New Testament in the Orthodox Church

Ioannis D. Karavidopoulos

From Jesus Christus als die Mitte der Schrift. Studien zur Hermeneutik des Evangeliums. Herausgegeben von Christof Landmesser, Hans-Joachim Eckstein und Hermann Lichtenberger, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin-New York, 1997

A significant portion of the New Testament, the Gospels which are its core, is permanently kept on the altar of every Orthodox church. From the altar the priest takes the text, in liturgical use known as a unified book “The Holy Gospel”, in order to read it in the liturgical gathering of the faithful. And he returns it to the altar after the reading. This indicates the special position that the Word of God has in the Orthodox Church as well as the close relationship which exists between the Holy Scriptures and the Church. The Church does not merely keep its Scriptures and read them to its faithful but it interprets them in a responsible manner throughout the centuries. We shall now proceed to an analytical presentation of: 1. the main features of Orthodox interpretation of the Scriptures with specific reference to the New Testament, 2. more briefly, the relationship between the Holy Scriptures and the Church, and 3. we shall conclude with a dialectic correlation between fidelity to the Tradition and the urgent need for a more efficient presentation of the biblical word in our days.

I. Main features of Orthodox interpretation of the Holy Scriptures

For a better understanding of the interpretive work of the Church, we must have in mind the following three basic presuppositions.

1. Orthodox theology makes a distinction between the Truth as that which is God Himself, as it was revealed in Christ and “dwelt among us” (John 1,14) and the record of the saving truth in the books of the Holy Scriptures. This distinction between record and truth carries, according to ?. Stylianopoulos, the following important implications: “First, it safeguards the mystery of God from being identified with the letter of Scripture. Secondly, it permits the freedom to see in the Bible the experiences of many persons in their relationship with God written in their own language, their own time and circumstances, their own symbols and images, and their own ideas about the world. It permits, in other words, a dynamic relationship between the Word of God contained in Scripture which consists of the truth of the Bible, and the words of men, the human forms in which God’s Word is communicated. Thirdly, it presupposes that the Orthodox Church highly esteems also other records of the experience of God, such as the writings of the Church Fathers, the liturgical forms and texts, and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. It rescues the Church from an exclusive focus on the Bible. Finally, the acknowledgment of a dynamic relationship between letter and spirit destroys doctrinaire biblical fundamentalism as a theological posture (that is to say the idea that God dictated propositions which were then written down word for word by the sacred authors) and thus guards Orthodox Christian life from the error of idololatrous veneration of the text of Scripture (bibliolatry). What the distinction between record and truth does not intend, however, is to minimize the importance of the Bible. If the Orthodox Church also esteems other records of the experience of God, the Bible still remains the primary record in the theological tradition and the worship of the Church”1.

2. What we call Tradition in the Orthodox Church -in a sense which is utterly misunderstood and misrepresented by non-Orthodox theologians2- is nothing else but the life experience of the Holy Scriptures by the Church within its age-long history. Since tradition is life, namely the act of receiving and handing down the treasure of faith, it is not in any way a static and emaciated affair but has the essential features of a living organism: movement, progress, assimilation of the environment, its transformation and, finally, elimination or rejection of particular elements which have lost their organic relation to the living body of Christ.

3. The interpretation of the Holy Scriptures has been a task of the body of Christ in the historical process of the Orthodox Church. That means that the interpretation of the books of the Old and the New Testaments cannot be the task of a particular individual working by himself, no matter how many academic titles he might have, but a task of the Church and a function which is fed by the Holy Spirit. Therefore in the final analysis, it is a charisma of the Holy Spirit. The individua1 interpretative attempts of theologians, past or present, have merit once they are found, on the basic points, within the consensus of the ecclesiastical consciousness even if they express this in a thoroughly original and personal fashion.

And now a remark that applies to these three basic presuppositions. If some theologians identified truth with the letter of the Bible (that is, they became in some sense idolaters of the biblical letter); or if they did not look upon Tradition as a life experience of the Holy Scriptures but as an inhibitive factor of real life; or if they interpreted the Holy Scriptures not as conscientious members of the body of Christ; if, then, these three deviations occurred -the pathological form of the three above-mentioned presuppositions- then Orthodoxy and most of all its image in the non-Orthodox world was directly affected. However, even if the representation of truth is humanly weak, the power of the truth is still derived from God Himself.

With these presuppositions in mind, we may now specify the main features of Orthodox interpretation of the Holy Scriptures:

1. Christianity as the revelation of God in history has an explicit historical character. Theology, and especially biblical interpretation, may not avoid taking into serious consideration the historical conditions that the books of the Old and the New Testaments presuppose, if it does not wish to deviate towards a type of Gnosticism. The Church of the first centuries fought desperately against the Gnostic heresies which, within a dualistic Hellenistic spirit, weakened the historical ground and led people to the intangible and immaterial. The Church did not oppose that deviation with Christian metaphysics but with the “scandal” of the historical event of the crucifixion, which is the apex of the whole history of God’s economy, the Heilsgeschichte, or even better the “mystery of God’s economy”. The Logos of God “was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1,14), in order to redeem humanity and to transform the world not merely eschatologically but historically as well, in the present.

The first theologian of the Church who stressed the historical character of the mystery of God’s redeeming economy was Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, who, towards the end of the 2nd century AD, presented, in his anti-heretical writings, the history of the Holy Scriptures as a drama in which God and man are the protagonists or stars set against the scenery of the concrete conditions that exist at each particular time. Within these concrete historical conditions, one of the two protagonists seeks the other, but especially the first one (God) seeks the second (man) who constantly slips away until they finally end up meeting each other in reconciliation, in Christ’s “recapitulation” of everything, according to this Pauline term, a favourite of Irenaeus.

The whole patristic interpretive tradition is found on this line of the historical character of redemption, although with different conditions each time, as are determined by the situations and needs of each interpreter. Let us mention here that patristic interpretation of history is always carried out under the biblical prism and not with abstract philosophical presuppositions. At the same time it underlines the paradox of history, a paradox which is due to the fact that the fathers accept: a) the supreme might of God but at the same time the freedom of human beings, b) holy grace but at the same time the role of human sin within history and c) the historical and at the same time supra-historical character of the end.

2. A second main feature of Orthodox Biblical interpretation is its ecclesiological character, its property as an ecclesiological function derived from the eucharistic experience of the interpreter and his or her illumination by the Spirit of God. The fact that Jesus Christ lived in a particular historical era, in a concrete space on earth, that he taught, performed miracles and was finally crucified at the time of Pontius Pilate may be ascertained through familiar historical methods. However, the fact that Jesus is the Risen Lord who can act dynamically in the life of each person can be accepted only by living “in the Holy Spirit” (1Cor 12,3). In other words, this means that history – without ceasing to be the solid ground of the interpreter- is transmuted and transformed into theology since that which interests us most, finally, is not only the historical event in itself but mainly its value for people of its times and of our times, that is, its existential message. A proper understanding of the Holy Scriptures is a movement that goes both ways: one is directed towards the time of the text; it is the exegesis of the text (which we have already mentioned in presenting the first feature of Orthodox Biblical interpretation, that is, its historical character). The other is directed towards our own times and is the main interpretation of the text, the message of the text. It is what the church always did with its interpreting -both among the Fathers and today- whenever and by whomever this is done.

3. The patristic character of interpretation gives a special stamp to Orthodox interpretation. This main feature, when properly understood, denotes a creative continuation of the spirit of the Fathers, that is, not an uncritical reproduction of their interpretations within our own changed historical, social and academic conditions, but fidelity to the living manner in which they theologically transubstantiated the meaning of the evangelical history into a sermon of life, into an existential call. It goes without saying that this fidelity is a fruit of participation in the tradition of interpretation and in the life of the Church.

In our days many intentional and unintentional misunderstandings , have arisen over the question of the relation between the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers. It is true that biblical history, the events of holy revelation, extend into the life of the Church. It is also true that the Holy Bible for Orthodox consciousness is understood and experienced through a concrete ecclesiastical prism which makes the Old Testament a mirror through which Christ himself and his Church are depicted and makes the New Testament the book of the Church, which transforms the book into life experience through the eucharist. None of these points however, can justify a museum-like inflexibility. The Spirit of God which set up and guides the Church is a spirit of freedom and not of slavery. In the name of this spirit of freedom in Christ, we should consider the persistent attempt to preserve the letter, rather than the spirit of patristic interpretation as offering poor service to the people of God. What we need today is not the unthinking survival of the fathers but their creative revival within the framework of modern conditions.

It would help considerably in understanding the things said here, if we consider more analytically some of the aspects of the patristic approach to the Scriptures. a) Interpretation for the Fathers of the Church is not an academic procedure or a scholastic occupation with the Holy Bible inside libraries but a sermon in the gathering of the people of God. Therefore, it is direct and vivid and addresses not only the mind but the heart of the listener as well, as it does not intend to fill their minds with knowledge from the Holy Bible or about the Holy Scriptures, but to guide them to deeds, to taking a stand, or renewing their stand (“repentance”) to- wards the cross and the resurrection of Christ which is the core especially of the New Testament message. In this way, the Fathers, as preachers of the word of God, link closely this life-giving word with their times in a profitable manner for their listeners or later readers; they link it with the concrete problems of the Christians of their times, so that they might provide feasible solutions, so that they might protect and educate them. They do not hesitate, for instance, to analyze the parable of the sower and to pin-point familiar contemporary heretics as the stony and thorny ground or to identify the grading of the good soil as categories of Christians of their times (a typical example is the speech attributed to St. Chrysostom, “On the sower who went out to sow …”, PG 61, 774f.).

The interest of the Fathers is focused clearly on the people of their times, and it is for this reason that the procedure of their interpretation is from Christ and the apostles to their own times, in contrast to modern research, especially in the West, where the ipsissima vox Jesu is sought behind the texts as well as the initial group of listeners whom He addresses. The retroactive process towards the initial aim and the initial group of listeners of Jesus has, of course, its academic merit; the reverse process, however, from the initial group of listeners to the later listener or reader has an additional catechetical value as well. And this second one is what attracts the favour of the Fathers who are mainly and most of all preachers and teachers of the congregation of the Church.

b) In addition to the organic linkage of the biblical text with its times, the interpreting Fathers employed the scientific knowledge of their times for the service of understanding the Scriptures, something underlined particularly by the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century, such as in the consistently brilliant annotations of St.Basil on the “Hexaemeron”, which, to recall the previous patristic feature, consists of a series of morning and evening sermons delivered in Caesaria of Cappadocia during Lent in the year 370. This patristic tactic of using scientific knowledge for the better understanding of the word of God has particular significance for our times, on one hand because the multitude of scientific and technological developments might with their proper use aid the interpretation of the word of God within the concrete framework of our times, and on the other it shows just how alien to the Orthodox Tradition is the stand of certain pious circles for whom knowledge -even theological!- is unneccessary and often deemed contrary to faith. This stand is in utter contrast to the patristic interpretive method.

c) The interest of the interpreting Fathers in correlating biblical work with the problems of their times, as well as their constant use of the scientific knowledge of their times for its broader understanding, led them in a natural way to an existential interpretation of the biblical message. In exactly the same way that the focal point of the writers of the Holy Scriptures is humanity, in the sense that God’s economy of redemption in Christ, announced in advance in the Old Testament and realized in the New Testament, concerns humanity and its redemption, so in patristic thought and theology, and therefore in their biblical interpretation, humanity with its tormenting existential problems is the inevitable focal point.

As a typical example of such existential or anthropological interpretation, we may mention the interpretation of the parables of the last judgment. Without in any way overlooking the eschatological perspective of these parables, the Fathers focus their thought, from an anthropological point of view, on the existential fact of each person’s biological end of life and underline the claim of constant spiritual awareness in view of this end, so that humanity and most of all the faithful are not caught unaware. A typical example is St. Chrysostom’s interpretation of the parable of the alert householder (Matth 24,42-44), in which the sudden appearance of the Son of ?an is interpreted as denoting the sudden coming of the end of life to each person (see PG 58, 705; Theophylactos PG 123, 420 and Euthymios Zigavinos PG 129, 628 and others, interpret this passage in a similar manner).

d) One can often find a great variety of interpretive aspects, sometimes even in the same Father or even in the same work. This variety demonstrates the wealth of the patristic interpretive tradition. Furthermore, the interpretive patristic polyphony is developed around one common theme which is the Church’s faith in the central event of the cross and the resurrection of Christ and the redeeming consequences which each one of the faithful experiences in the Church. On that, no interpretive polyphony is conceivable. However, in the various individual biblical themes, the interpretive variety is not only permissible but indeed obligatory, given the rich mine of the Scriptures.

The above mentioned facts do not exhaust the breadth of the patristic interpretation of the Bible, but merely show four typical aspects of it which are worth studying as points of reference, not in the sense of their precise repetition today, but in the sense that the modern interpreter should stand within the framework of the concrete problems of our times.

4. From the previous features of the Orthodox interpretation of the Bible, there springs as well the following consequence for the interpretive function of the Church: paving the way towards anything positive that God’s visible creation has to offer, creation and history, that is, the embracing of anything that is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous and praiseworthy, according to the exhortation of St. Pau1 in Philippians 4,8. In the name of this act of embracing the whole of created reality, the Church, throughout the ages, has incorporated, without any fear or hesitation, “whatever was well said by anybody”, according to the phrase of St. Justin.

An example of such creative incorporation is the paving of the way of the Fathers through the scholarly thought of their times which serves as an explicit guide for today as well. The Church did not have any hesitation in its history to consider as its own anything within the arts or literature which expressed Christian truths. In this way, e.g. the phrase of the Greek poet Menander (4th century B.C.) ?st? d???? ?f?a?�??, o? t? p?v?’ ??a (= There is an eye of justice which watches everything)3 which expressed the omnipresence and the good judgement of God entered without any problem the iconostasis of many Greek Orthodox churches.

By extension, today one might support that paving the way of interpretation in the modern discipline may only bring profit to the Church rather than any harm. Modern physics, molecular biology, sociological research, technological achievements may serve the better understanding of the word of God in our times. The example of St. Basil is consequently very instructive: “?? ?a? �? pa?????? a???e?? t?? ?e???????? f????. ???? pe???s?a? t?? e? e??st? ???e? ?a? e? e??st? s???a�? ?e???��???? ???? e????e?e??, ??? a???? e?? e?s?�e?a?, a??? ????????t?? t?? s??p?? t?? ???se?? ?�??� ?t? p???e?ta? ?�?? ?�??????a? Te?, ?at? t? d??at?? ?????p?? f?se?. O�???s?? d? ??? ??e? ???se??� ? de ???s?? ??? e?t?? d?da?�?t?? … epe?d? d?s???at?? ? a???e?a, pa?ta???e? ?�?? e????e?t?a.� (= “To count the terms used in theology as of primary importance, and to endeavor to trace out the hidden meaning in every phrase and in every syllable, is a characteristic wanting in those who are idle in the pursuit of true religion, but distinguishing all who get knowledge of �the mark�of our �calling�; for what is set before us is, so far as is possible with human nature, to be made like unto God. Now without knowledge there can be no making like; and knowledge is not gotten without lessons. … Truth is always a quarry hard to hunt, and therefore we must look everywhere for its tracks”)4. The expression of St. Basil pa?ta???e? (everywhere, in every direction), might, in a versatile and resourceful way, be applied in our modern times and in its multiple potentialities. His scholarly interpretation of the word of God cannot be exercised within tight compartments, without the living contact with areas of knowledge which are occupied with other spaces of the divine creation.

5. Within the heart of Orthodoxy, there emerges the principle of the priority of the text in relation to the interpreter. The awareness that the biblical text preceded its modern interpreter by many centuries and -most significantly- that between the text and the interpreter are interposed the life of the Church and the Tradition, makes the interpreter have a humble spirit and an awareness of his or her weakness. Egocentric self-confidence and uncontrolled fanaticism are alien to Orthodox interpretation and to the Orthodox interpreter. The interpreter serves the truth and endeavours in the Holy Spirit to interpret the text in his own times; he offers service to the body of Christ with the awareness that the truth is found above him. Conversely, when, instead of serving the truth, he puts it to his own service, to serve his own aims, then he does not serve the body of Christ but himself. In the first case, he might even sacrifice himself for the truth, if necessary, -something which in fact took place during the centuries-long life of the Church. In the second case, he sacrifices the truth. However, this is something pathological manifested by fanaticism and bigotry, phenomena which occurred in the past and occur today as well.

II. The Church and the Bible

All of the main features of Orthodox scriptural interpretation converge in the recognition of its ecclesiological basis. But according to modern scholarly research as well, especially in the field of the Gospels and most specifically of their background (the so-called Formgeschichte), it is generally accepted, beyond the individual differentiations of the researchers, that the ecclesiastical community and its tradition take chronological precedence, as far as time is concerned, in comparison to the recording of the Gospels, and, of course, of the rest of the books of the New Testament. It is therefore not right to over-emphasise the superiority of the Bible against the Church, nor, on the other hand, does emphasis on the absolute power of the Church against the Bible find any justification. Exaggerations in one or the other direction during the historical process of Christianity have created situations that are alien to Orthodoxy. Of course, the Church without the Bible resembles a ship without a rudder, yet the Bible without or outside the Church remains un-interpreted. Within the Church, the interpretive function in the Holy Spirit ensures the rightness of the interpretation, on condition, of course, that the interpreter carries out his significant task “in a searching way and not neglectfully” (e?e???t???? ?a? ?? pa??de?t????), as, for that matter, the 2nd canon of the 7th Ecumenica1 Synod demands.

At the same time, we must not forget that the Church itself recognizes and considers the Bible as a “canon” which regulates the right faith and life of its members. St. John of Damascus writes accordingly: “?spe? ?a? d??d??? pa?? ta? d?e??d??? t?? ?d?t?? pef?te?�????, ??t? ?a? ? ???? t? ?e?a a?de??�??? G?af?, p?a??eta?, ?a? ?a?p?? ???�?? d?d?s?, p?st?? ????d????, ?a? ae??a??s? t??? f??????, ta?? ?ea??st??? f?�?, ??a??eta? p???es?� p??? te ?a? p????? e???et??, ?a? ?e???a? a????t??, e? t?? a???? G?af?? ???�???�e?a. (= For just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season, viz orthodox belief and is adorned with evergreen leafage, I mean actions pleasing to God. For through the Holy Scriptures we are trained to action that is pleasing to God, and untroubled contemplation)5.

III. Tradition and revival

In our times, there has been a gradually increasing awareness, on the part of workers with the word of God who toil either in the field of the Church or in the field of academic discipline, that there is a need for revival of the biblical message while at the same time emphasizing the value of fidelity to the Tradition. These two are found to be contending against each other. Fidelity to the Tradition should not be confused with a sterile or fruitless conservatism or of formal adherence to inflexible formalities of the historical past. Indeed this fidelity to the Tradition demands its continuous revival. The rehashing of traditional interpretations without any contact with modern reality is a poor representation of Orthodoxy and poorly serves the Christian Gospel. Behind the label of �conservatism� are concealed laziness and weakness, and even lack of experience of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has never ceased acting within the Church and illuminating its members, since it “sets up the whole of the institution of the Church”.

“My Father works hitherto, and I work”, says Jesus himself (John 5,17). And so the responsible interpreter and each conscientious Christian also �works�, toils so that he takes possession of the revealed truth and the benefits of the redemptive sacrifice of the cross of Christ. The Christian truth is offered, it is �revealed� as a gift from God, but it is also then conquered by man. Whoever rejects the revelation, the manifestation of truth, actually rejects Christianity; and whoever does not accept the toil for its conquest, refuses the worth of the creation of God; he also rejects God Himself. This, in the area of biblical interpretation means that the Orthodox interpreter on one hand accepts the valuable legacy of his Tradition but, on the other hand, he does not reject the human toil of recent scientific research, but after critical dealing with it, points out its positive achievements.

We have previously dealt with the conquest of truth by man, for the Bible is not a book of the past but of the present of each successive era, and the members of the “body of Christ” which continuously lives and increases, especially the members that have a particular function, e.g. the interpretive one, may not, in the name of fidelity to the Tradition, evade the painstaking task of interpretation within the framework of the conditions of their times and within the contemporary data.

This latter feature of the Scripture is very effectively analysed by Fr. G. Florovsky: “Revelation is preserved in the Church. Therefore, the Church is the proper and primary interpreter of revelation. It is protected and reinforced by written words; protected but not exhausted. Human words are no more than signs. The testimony of the Spirit revives the written words. We do not mean now the occasional illumination of individuals by the Holy Ghost, but primarily the permanent assistance of the Spirit given to the Church, that is �the pillar and bulwark of the truth� (1Tim 3,15). The Scriptures need interpretation. Not the phrasing, but the message is the core. And the Church is the divinely appointed and permanent witness to the very truth and the full meaning of this message, simply because the Church belongs itself to the revelation, as the Body of the Incarnate Lord. The proclamation of the Gospel, the preaching of the Word of God, obviously belongs to the esse of the Church. The Church stands by its testimony and witness. But this witness is not just a reference to the past, not merely a reminiscence, but rather a continuous rediscovery of the message once delivered to the saints and ever since kept by faith. Moreover, this message is ever re-enacted in the life of the Church. Christ himself is ever present in the Church, as the Redeemer and head of his Body, and continues his redeeming office in the Church. Salvation is not only announced or proclaimed in the Church, but precisely enacted. The sacred history is still continued. The mighty deeds of God are still being performed. Magnalia Dei are not circumscribed by the past; they are present and continued, in the Church and, through the Church, in the world. The Church is itself an integral part of the New Testament message. The Church itself is a part of revelation -the story of �the Whole Christ� (totus Christus:caput et corpus, in the phrase of St. Augustine) and of the Holy Ghost. The ultimate end of revelation, its telos, has not yet come. And only within the experience of the Church is the New Testament truly and fully alive. Church history is itself a story of redemption. The truth of the book is revealed and vindicated by the growth of the Body”6.

Based on the facts presented above, we may conclude that the theory of Interpretation and the action of the Orthodox Church were and continue to be interwoven with the pursuits and challenges of each era, always to the measure, of course, of feasibility. The traditional interpretation of the Bible, as it was imprinted mainly in the works of the Fathers and in its various expressions (e.g. hymnography, iconography, sermons etc.) clearly contains within itself the historical dimension as well, the incorporation of scientific knowledge and all those things that we mentioned above as its particular features, because the Orthodox interpretation of the Bible, considered properly, was always in harmony with the needs of its times, not in the sense, of course, that it draws its content from each era -it draws that from the Church and from its Head, that is Christ- but in the sense that it is neither possible nor permissible for the Church not to take the vital needs of its times under consideration. The same applies to major contemporary problems (e.g. war and peace, famine and super-abundance of goods, loneliness and society, underestimation of women in certain societies and theoretical feminist excesses in others and so on). These cannot remain outside the interest of the interpreter. If that is what happens, then the interpreter is not doing his work properly, that is, in an Orthodox way, and is found outside the cultural development of his times.

Each era has change as a main feature, while the biblical message has durability as its feature. However, what is changeable does not by itself form theology, but causes its intervention. On the other hand, the firm biblical foundation, firmly experienced in the life of the Church, has already formed a theology. But this theology remains inactive, if it does not seriously take under consideration the changeable conditions of the times.

Orthodox Biblical interpretation takes into serious consideration the historical, social, cultural and the rest of the related circumstances of the times of the interpreter, for exactly this reason, that it is traditional. Furthermore, since it draws its content from the living tradition, it continues this tradition by being contemporary and by not ignoring the problems of each era.

NOTES

1 T. Stylianopoulos, Bread for life. Reading the Bible, 1980, 13f.

2 The author of this study is happy to participate in this volume in honour of Professor Otfried Hofius who has very profound knowledge of the Orthodox tradition as well as of contemporary Orthodox interpretation of the Holy Scripture.

3 Menandri Sententiae, ed. S. Jaekel, Leipzig, 1964, 45

4 St. Basil the Great, Liber de Spiritu Sancto 1,2, in: PG 32, 67-218: 69; Engl. transl. by the Rev. Blomfield Jackson, A Select Library of Nicene and post- Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 8, 1968, 2.

5 Johannes Damascenus, Expositio accurata fidei orthodoxae IV, 17, in: PG 94, 790-1228: 1176.

6 G. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, 1972, 25f.